The “thumping” taken by the Republican Congress on election day was not just a rejection of K Street corruption and the catastrophe in Iraq. It was a call to action on issues that are more immediately relevant to people’s lives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will begin to answer that call by pushing a “100 Hours” agenda–including common-sense legislation to increase the minimum wage, cut interest on student loans and open the way for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
That’s a good beginning, but it’s only a down payment on a broader agenda. As Bill Moyers writes in this issue, progressives now have the opportunity to develop a new vision that returns power to the American people for the first time in generations. Moyers is right that to-do lists don’t add up to a vision. But Democrats must show they are serious by passing bold measures that define a new “people’s agenda.” With that in mind, here are ten existing pieces of legislation that deserve to be passed by our new Congress. Some of these bills are eminently passable, a few are related to the “100 Hours” agenda and others can be seen as long-term goals. But all would help return our nation to the path to a more perfect union (note: Bill numbers may change in the new Congress).
1. Healthcare for All
More than 47 million Americans are now living without health coverage. Representative John Conyers’s United States National Health Insurance Act (HR 676) would create a single-payer healthcare system by expanding Medicare to every resident. All necessary medical care would be covered–from prescription drugs to hospital services to long-term care. There would be no deductibles or co-payments. Funding would come from sources including savings from negotiated bulk procurement of medications; a tax on the top 5 percent of income earners; and a phased-in payroll tax that is lower than what employers currently pay for less comprehensive employee health coverage. With seventy-eight Congressional co-sponsors, and the endorsement of more than 200 labor organizations as well as healthcare groups, there is muscle and momentum behind this bill. To get involved, check out www.Healthcare-Now.org.
2. Counting Every Vote
Representative Rush Holt has introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (HR 550) requiring all voting systems to provide a voter-verified paper trail to serve as the official ballot for recounts and audits. It would also insure accessibility for voters with disabilities. The bill, which was introduced in February 2005 and which currently has 222 bipartisan co-sponsors, was tied up in committee by the Republican Congress. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones introduced the Count Every Vote Act (S 450 and HR 939), which also calls for a voter-verified paper trail and would improve access for language minority voters, illiterate voters and voters with disabilities. Co-sponsors of that legislation include Senators John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg, Patrick Leahy and Barbara Mikulski, and seventy-nine House members.
3. Healthy Families Act
According to Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce, “nearly half of all private-sector workers in the United States do not have a single day of paid sick leave. And more do not have a paid day off that can be used to care for a sick child.” Seventy-five percent of low-wage workers lack paid sick leave–the very people who can least afford to take a day off and still be able to pay the bills. In 2005 Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act (S 932 and HR 1902)–a bill that would require employers with fifteen or more workers to provide one week of paid sick leave for those who work thirty or more hours a week. Employees who work less than that would receive prorated leave. The leave could be used to care for family as well. The new Democratic Congress is expected to hold hearings on the legislation, which has fifteen original co-sponsors in the Senate and seventy-one in the House, in early 2007.
4. The Right to Organize
The Employee Free Choice Act (S 842 and HR 1696) would strengthen workers’ freedom to organize by requiring employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards authorizing representation. It also would create stronger penalties for management violations of the right to organize when workers seek to form a union. Currently there are 214 co-sponsors of Representative George Miller’s House bill (including fourteen Republicans) and forty-four co-sponsors of Kennedy’s legislation in the Senate (including Republican Senator Arlen Specter). This legislation would go a long way toward helping the 57 million nonunion workers in the United States who, according to polls, would form a union tomorrow if given the opportunity.
5. No Permanent Bases in Iraq
Representative Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has proposed House Conference Resolution 197, which declares that it is “the policy of the United States not to enter into any base agreement with the Government of Iraq that would lead to a permanent United States military presence in Iraq.” By passing this bill, Congress can send a clear and immediate signal to the Iraqi people and the international community that the United States has no intention of staying in Iraq indefinitely. There were eighty-six co-sponsors of Lee’s legislation, including three Republicans.
6. Stop Outsourcing Torture
Representative Ed Markey’s Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act (HR 952) directs the Secretary of State to submit to Congress an annual list of countries where there are substantial grounds for believing that torture or cruel and degrading treatment is commonly used in detention or interrogation. The bill prohibits the direct or indirect transfer or return of people by the United States for the purpose of detention, interrogation, trial or other purposes to a listed country. Given the recent history of black sites, torture flights, innocent victims and suspension of habeas corpus, this legislation should be an immediate priority. It is one modest step in the right direction. It currently has seventy-seven co-sponsors.
7. Access to Higher Education
Senator Richard Durbin and Representative George Miller’s Reverse the Raid on Student Aid Act (S 2573 and HR 5150) would cut interest rates on college loans for student and parent borrowers. The legislation would save $5,600 for the typical student borrower, who currently graduates with $17,500 in student-loan debt. The Durbin-Miller legislation cuts interest rates in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent, for students with subsidized loans, and from 8.5 percent to 4.25 percent for parents. Earlier this year, the GOP Congress cut $12 billion out of federal student aid programs to help finance tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. The average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen 40 percent when adjusted for inflation, since 2001, according to the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges. And the average student debt has increased by more than 50 percent over the past decade, according to the Project on Student Debt. With economic inequality and the concentration of wealth reaching unprecedented levels, improving access to higher education is essential. It also is critical if we are to reverse the trend of the US workforce lagging behind other nations in education.
8. Free and Independent Media
Representative Maurice Hinchey sponsored the Media Ownership Reform Act (MORA–HR 3302), which seeks to restore a diverse media by significantly lowering the number of media outlets one company is permitted to own in a single market. Since 1996 the Federal Communications Commission has promoted massive media consolidation by increasing that number, allowing telecommunications corporations to buy up a larger share of television and radio stations, newspapers and other media outlets, and forcing independent and local media owners out of business. There are sixteen co-sponsors of MORA in the House.
9. Public Financing of Campaigns
Representative John Tierney introduced the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act (HR 3099) last year with thirty-nine Democrats and one Independent as co-sponsors. The bill establishes a voluntary system that offers candidates an option for public financing and reduced rates on broadcast advertising in exchange for self-imposed limits on campaign financing and spending. Participating candidates get a dollar-for-dollar match, up to a set limit, if a nonparticipating opponent spends more than the basic public-financing grant. This system would free candidates from the burden of continuous fundraising; allow those who obtain a prescribed number of contributions to run regardless of their economic status or access to large funders; and, perhaps most important, eliminate the skewed priorities caused by the financing of campaigns by special-interest contributors.
10. Clean Energy
Last May Senator Maria Cantwell introduced the Clean EDGE Act (S 2829) with twenty-four Democratic co-sponsors. The bill sets a goal of reducing US petroleum consumption by 6 million barrels a day by 2020–or 40 percent of America’s projected imports. It mandates that 25 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States by 2010 be flex-fuel capable (able to run on higher blends of biofuels, which help to displace petroleum), rising to 50 percent by 2020. It also sets a national goal of installing alternative fuels at 10 percent of US gas stations by 2015. The bill also makes gas price-gouging a federal crime. It ends subsidies for major oil companies and extends incentives for renewable energy and efficiency technologies. To shrink US dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the bill requires that 10 percent of all US electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. A report by the Apollo Alliance and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Clean EDGE Act would create more than 500,000 jobs, including tens of thousands in states hit hardest by the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs.
This list is by no means all-inclusive. But these are good and important initiatives that address longstanding and formidable challenges.